On the Art of Responsibility

This isn’t a post about answers. It is, in fact, less an offering of original insight and more an incorporation of someone else’s insights into my own awareness. It is a query, a realization, a decision, and an experiment. And it glimmers with possibility. The brief discussion that follows is inspired by a recent reading of Rollo May’s Man’s Search for Himself. This is the second of Dr. May’s works I’ve had the pleasure of reading, and I recommend it without reservation, not only for its powerful insights into the human condition (which are as important today as when they were written), but also for the author’s sincerity and the respect with which he treats his readers while approaching a challenging and personal subject. But, I digress. I’ll stop gushing now.

I could have written a number of posts on the ideas considered in Man’s Search for Himself. It’s an incredible work. But, it was May’s discussion of responsibility that most excited me and that seemed most rife with possibility. This is, perhaps, because the author’s conception of responsibility—for him, a practice central to the integration of individual consciousness—challenged my own. Beckoning me to reconsider and, if need be, to reformulate, what it means to me to accept responsibility for my decisions, my responses, and my attitudes in any given situation.

To be sure, it seems enough to assert, in a global sense, that I am a responsible woman. I take reasonably good care of my health. I have a full-time job. I manage my income and my debts. I juggle hobbies, a social life, and other familial and relational pursuits. I strive for fullness. I recognize that I can be impetuous, too adventurous, and sometimes rebellious—spontaneous to a fault—but I’ve learned how to mitigate those impulses. Responsible adult. Check.

And, yet, the description I’ve just given hardly fits that of an “art,” which, by my title’s claims, is the intended focus of this post. It’s straightforward. It’s cookie-cutter. It’s a definition by someone else’s rules. Or by appearance only. With little, if any regard for interior life. That—responsibility for one’s inner life and its outer reflections—I believe (if I have, at all, read May correctly), should rightly be considered an art.

And, I’d never thought of it that way before. For all of the inner arts I’ve conceived of and written about here, it had never before occurred to me that personal responsibility might be included among them. Yet, in Man’s Search for Himself, May presented me with a notion of responsibility that hinged on the assertion of will, decisiveness, individual awareness, and engagement with the nuances of one’s physical and emotional states that I hadn’t quite considered previously.

The basic step in achieving inward freedom is ‘choosing oneself.’ This…means to affirm one’s responsibility for one’s self and one’s existence. It is the attitude which is opposite to blind momentum or routine existence; it is an attitude of aliveness and decisiveness; it means that one recognizes that he exists in this particular spot in the universe, and he accepts the responsibility for his existence. – Rollo May

The everdayness of responsibility. It’s subtleties. It’s hidden necessities. That’s what intrigues me. What makes me feel alive with the possibility of testing May’s ideas in my own life. It’s the notion that I accept responsibility for the course of my life each day—where I go, what I do, how I relate and respond to other people, to circumstances, whether I decide to truly live or not. To be an actor or an observer. There is something of poetry in it.

Now, if I see myself at all clearly, I do believe that, in my daily life, I partially enact this more artistic, more nuanced, and interior-focused version of responsibility. But, I could do so much more. I found myself, on reading May’s description of responsibility, envisioning myself behaving better. Thinking better. More engaged, perhaps. More likely to stifle the inner sniveling voice (the very same one I encountered on Kilimanjaro) who is prone, on occasion, to complaints, fits, and bouts of victimhood. Really.

So, I’ve decided to give May’s ideas their due. And re-route my thinking over the next seven days. In accord with his version of responsibility. I anticipate the following will happen:

1.) I will be met with some resistance from the rest of myself, although it won’t be insurmountable.

2.) I will feel at least somewhat more confident, empowered, and even excited about certain facets of my life.

3.) I will make changes. (Although they may not be life-altering. Then again, they may be.)

I will base my judgments on the way I feel and on the soundness of any significant decisions made. I will, as usual, do my best to be as honest as possible about the internal processes involved, and be sure to post about my findings. I intuit that Dr. May is correct. And that I am capable and ready to conduct this kind of experiment. If I like the results, I will continue my efforts for another seven days.

11 thoughts on “On the Art of Responsibility

  1. Great post. I think the attitude to the responsibility you’re discussing is particularly suited to the introvert. We live in a world that rewards the flashy and unthinking rather than the slow and cerebral, at least in the short term. Keep fighting the resistance.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you. I agree. Introspective activity, in general, gets a bad rap these days. In the short term, allowing oneself to simply be “swept along” unthinkingly is easier. In the long term, surely, a recipe for disaster.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. “Is emerging adulthood a rich and varied period for self-discovery…? Or is it just another term for self-indulgence?” asks Robin Marantz Heinig in a New York Times Magazine article. Maybe 20-somethings, with their elongated period of “emerging adulthood,” are realizing incrementally the promise of what Marx called species being — a freedom from social alienation and the duress of the struggle to survive, and the emancipation into total personhood. Maybe as long as it seems that way, it is.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Maybe. An extended period of freedom from alienation. But, I would question the utility of such a period if one weren’t also working, in some fashion, toward a goal, the furtherance of an interest, or the honing of a skill. Taking responsibility for oneself during such a period may require some creative negotiations, in the way of income, living situation, etc., but that’s also part of becoming a mature, wise, well-rounded individual. Not allowing oneself to be defeated by dehumanizing forces is an invaluable skill, indeed. Pure indulgence won’t sculpt character.

      Liked by 1 person

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